Directed by David Cronenberg. USA. 2005.

Reviewed by Jen Johnston and Jamie Garwood

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Since first seeing the trailer for A History of Violence, I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I wanted to write a glowing review, with all kinds of nice comments about director David Cronenberg's artistry. I wanted to compliment Viggo Mortensen's performance. I wanted to say how impressed I was by the supporting players Maria Bello and Ed Harris. I basically wanted to write a review  where every line would be suitable to appear on the movie poster. Though this movie is masterfully shot, written well, and features some excellent performances, I will not be writing the glowing review. A History of Violence left me cold.

A History of Violence. All rights reserved.A History of Violence is the story of Tom Stall. Tom lives in Smalltown USA with his lovely wife, and his two children. Tom lives a quiet life, not having too much happen in his day-to-day life. That is, until a robbery at his diner causes him to commit an act of violence that will change his, and his family's life forever.

Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings) plays Tom Stall. Though Mortensen does portray Stall with a layered complexity, I never found myself getting emotionally involved with his character. Mortensen gives Stall an understated ferocity. His character is genuinely intimidating, but Mortensen never allows him to become a one-note performance, peppering Stall's tough guy intensity with moments of gentle awkwardness.  Having said that however, I found Stall's personality to be so wholly cold, that I found it impossible to connect with him. Being kept on the outside of Mortensen's anti-hero made the climatic moments of the film less than gripping, lessening the tension throughout the entire film.

Maria Bello (The Cooler) plays Tom's wife Edie. Bello's portrayal  of a tough-as-nails woman under pressure is quite impressive. Unlike most of her female action counterparts who sit quietly off in a corner waiting for the male lead to come waltzing in and save them, Bello's Edie holds her own against a husband she's unsure of, the scrutiny of local law enforcement and the national press, and mafia types threatning her children. What I really liked about Edie was that underneath that fine layer of bravado was a core of vunerability, letting me identify with her character. Bello's human reactions to incredibly stressful situations make her the most genuine character in the film. Unfortunatley Edie is so likeable, where Tom is so unlikeable, that you spend the majority of Edie's onscreen time less concerned about the men with guns, and more wondering why it is that she's spending her life married to such a cold hearted man when she could do so much better.

A History of Violence is artfully done, and I have no doubt will garner it's share of critical accolades. My problem is that even though the film is well constructed, beautifully acted, and well written, it's not emotionally involving. It's unnessecarily brutal. While it is quite thrilling in moments, those moments are  too few and far between, and they're marred by the excessive gore that those moments contain. (I can grasp that someone's been hit, without having to see someone's face actually rearranged into goo.) All the components of this movie are excellent when examined as seperate entities. The director is great. I like all the actors involved. The story idea was good. But the seperate entities didn't come together as I had hoped. I wanted a gripping movie, with lots of excitement, great characters, and an underlying message about how violence can affect your life. What I got was a sort of exciting movie, that was gory, with brutal characters with no seeming motivation for their actions, with no real message about violence at all. Not at all the power piece that I had hoped for or expected, considering the talent level involved. 

Appropriate Ages : 16 and up
Parental Warning Bells : Graphic violence/Heavy gore/Murder of a Child/Full Frontal Nudity/Explicit sexual content/Offensive language/Spousal and child abuse/Graphic depictions of several sexual assaults/drug use/
Parental Film Barometer : Though you may get some complaints from any Viggo Mortensen fans in your
family, if your child couldn't sit through a Natural Born Killers or a Red Dragon they shouldn't be anywhere NEAR this one. If your kids like Viggo, rent Hidalgo instead.
Memo to Two Groups of Parents who brought their 9/10 year old boys to see this movie : When the movie's
title actually has the word "violence" in it, DON'T take your kids.

Jen Johnston

Much like Jim Jarmusch, David Cronenberg makes a stab for mainstream acceptability – did I say stab, I meant shot – with his most accessible work since 1986’s The Fly.  Like then he has acquired a handsome cast, a gripping story of how one person’s act can change his world and those around him and a chance for the director to not be the star attraction of the piece, unlike past work Spider and Existenz that relied upon his name carrying the film.

The cast is Viggo Mortenson finding a role to put the Lord of the Rings behind him and move on; Mario Bello continues her slow progression up the Hollywood ladder from independent muse to mainstream enigma and as always there is strong support from Ed Harris and William Hurt.

The story concerns Tom Stall (Mortenson), the owner of a small-town diner who defends his premises from would-be thieves who turn nasty and the media circus that crowns him a hero.  Then follows the arrival of Carl Fogarty (Harris) who tells Tom that he is actually Joey Cusack, a former member of the mob in Philadelphia who left the game and disfigured Fogarty; this would explain the swiftness with which Tom dealt with the thieves.  This leads to Tom changing, not in the eyes of the town where he lives, but more importantly to his wife, Edie (Bello) and teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) who himself is a victim of bullying at school.

The eventual change in Tom leads to a differing atmosphere in the once welcoming family home and a difference in the sexual relationship between Tom and Edie.  Earlier in the film it was tender and loving; while the next time they make love it is rough and brutal - bordering itself on violent – on the staircase with a lack of feeling that was so apparent in the early scene.  And, the son also overcomes his bully with violence when pushed, but that leads to a suspension and possible legal action from his antagonist’s family.

Critics may assume this to be a glorification of violence, but the only scenes of violence are:

1, The attempted robbery at the diner; 
2, The fight on the Stall’s front lawn; 
3, The second sex scene between Tom and Edie and, 
4, The fight at the house in Philadelphia.

These are mere pockets of violence in a film that is really dealing with the cause and effects of violence on the everyday person who uses it.  In that case then the film is looking for dramatic effect and not the mere pursuit of glorifying violence, as opposed to the work of Tarantino.

Jen Johnston - in her review of the same film above - stated that she found herself to be ‘not emotionally involved’ with the film or the character Tom who she branded an ‘anti-hero’.  That is the point of having an anti-hero (is he even a hero?) that is cold-hearted when you discover the truth behind the character.  It is no surprise to me that the film’s identity and visceral experience comes from the violent scenes; the film works well as a drama until these violent acts are visualised, after that all people will remember about the film is the violence.  Much like Cronenberg’s namesake Lynch did with Blue Velvet (1986), this is critique of suburban, Middle America is overshadowed by the darkness and sado-masochistic acts of Frank Booth and to go further back into American history, people remember James Mason flipping out in Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) rather than the message it attempted to convey about prescription drugs.

Cronenberg is served well by a quality cast who do there jobs well but they are overshadowed by Cronenberg whose history of ‘body horror’ comes to the fore by bringing a ting of horror and looking away as he shows us the impact of a bullet hitting flesh and a face being torn apart by glass.  This is not a glorification of violence but merely attempting to make real the gore of it.  Cronenberg’s direction is sparse and not overpowering in the dramatic scenes letting the actors come into their own, but his attempts to do a mainstream film and not be the headline act fails because he comes to the fore with these violent scenes and (whether knowing it or not) relishes the opportunity.

Like Blue Velvet, these critiques how far removed Middle America is from the east or west coast with its everyday violence, and how an explosion of violence can alter your interpretation of the self and others (even the Other if you will).  Violence makes and shapes America, as will your reaction to this.

Jamie Garwood
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